Honduran Ministry of Public Health refuses to release information about vaccine purchases

While the Honduran government has publicly stated that it has issued a contract to purchase the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine, the Ministry of Public Health has denied Contracorriente’s request for information about the contract on the grounds that the vaccine procurement is still in process. 

By Lizz Mejía

Photos by Martín Cálix

The Honduran government announced in early March that it had reached an agreement with the Russian Federation to purchase its vaccine. Press releases from the Office of the President and the Ministry of Public Health revealed the government’s intent to purchase 4.2 million doses of the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine to inoculate 2.1 million Hondurans – a little less than half of the citizens eligible for immunization. A March 9 press release published on several official government websites reported that Alexander Nikolaevich Khokholikov, Russia’s Ambassador to Honduras, confirmed that he would arrive in Honduras between March 9 and 10 to finalize the contract.

In the March 9 press release, President Juan Orlando Hernández said, “The Russian Ambassador, Alexander Nikolaevich Khokholikov, told me, ‘Mr. President, the details of the agreement have been signed off.’ Teams from the health and finance ministries, as well as private watchdog groups, have reviewed the document and it has now been sent to Russia. We are waiting for confirmation of the vaccine delivery schedule along with the signed agreement either today or tomorrow.”

Contracorriente requested the contract from the Ministry of Public Health and also from the Ministry of Finance. We received an email response the same day from the Ministry of Finance’s public information officer, who said, “The institution responsible for providing the requested information is the Ministry of Public Health. I am providing you with the contact information for that Ministry’s public information officer so that you can submit your information request to them.”

When we received no response from the Ministry of Public Health, we submitted our information request to the Health Regulation Agency (Agencia de Regulación Sanitaria), which replied by email, “This institution does not have authority or legal capacity to purchase Sputnik V vaccines. As such, it has not issued any contracts to purchase this product.”

The Ministry of Public Health’s public information officer finally replied on March 22 in an email with an attached letter dated March 15, 2021. The letter informed us that the contract could not be made public since “this ministry is currently in the midst of the contracting process.” The letter was signed by the Minister of Public Health, Sara del Carmen Álvarez Sánchez.

The delivery date of the vaccine developed by Russia’s Gamaleya Institute is still unknown, and the Ministry of Public Health’s response raises doubts about the existence of a vaccine purchase contract. Finance Minister Marco Midence stated in a television interview that no disbursement has been made yet and that while they were told production of the Russian vaccine has increased, they have not been informed of the vaccine batch numbers that will be delivered to Honduras.

Honduran public institutions have not been transparent about their pandemic management efforts. Vladimir Mendoza, commissioner of the Institute for Public Information Access (Instituto de Acceso a la Información Pública – IAIP), told Contracorriente in November 2020 that the Attorney General’s office received about 400 cases that year regarding denials of information requests made to public institutions, but the IAIP does not have the human or technical resources to handle all these legal cases. 

This is not the first time that the Ministry of Public Health has rejected a Contracorriente request for public information. On June 18, 2020, we submitted a request through the government’s online information request portal (Sistema de Información Electrónico de Honduras – SIELHO) for the results of President Juan Orlando Hernandez’s COVID-19 screening test after the president made various statements to the media that he and his wife had tested positive. Subsequent to our request, the Office of the President issued a statement reiterating that the president and his wife tested positive for COVID-19. Six months later, and after a formal appeal filed by Contracorriente reporter Fernando Silva, the Ministry of Public Health finally released the results of the president’s COVID-19 test.

Read our report: Hoaxes and errors with the Honduran president’s COVID-19 test results

Contracorriente has appealed the denial of its request for information about the vaccine purchase contract, since according to statements made by government officials in press conferences and interviews, the contract has already been signed by both parties. The requested document contains information of vital national interest, since acquiring the vaccine is an initial step towards achieving herd immunity and reducing the number of cases in the overcrowded public hospitals. So far, Honduras has inoculated 53,574 health personnel with 5,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine donated by the Israeli government, and 48,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine obtained through the COVAX program. The vials of the Moderna vaccine contained extra doses, which enabled the vaccination of another 574 citizens working in the country’s hospitals.

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